Eventually, I rejoined the Share Our Strength group to tour the cattle shed, the gardens and kitchen, and the partially built hospital. When finally it was time for us to leave, all of the children, hundreds of them, lined the road from the school to the main gate. As I walked toward them, I scanned the faces for Alima's. There were close to three hundred children, standing three rows deep. It should have been impossible to find her. In fact I soon realized that it was impossible not to find her.
She beamed at me, and I waved and yelled "Alima!" I reached across the first row of children and we shook hands again.
On my way back to Addis Ababa, and to the United States, I asked myself why one young woman among so many had made such an impression on me. I didn't fully understand it then, nor do I claim to understand it now. I just knew that it moved me. I was simply delighted to have met Alima. I was struck by the sense that anything was possible for her -- or for anyone who was so ready to live life to the fullest. From that day forward I followed her progress. For a little over a year we exchanged letters. I received pictures of her reading her graduation speech. I have had many different experiences in my travels for Share Our Strength, but never have I connected with anyone quite the way I did with Alima.
The following summer, when my colleague Chuck Scofield returned to Ethiopia, I gave him a handwritten letter to deliver to Alima. Though Chuck and I keep in close touch, I didn't hear from him for weeks. Then one morning I received this email:
Dear Billy, I have not called because I have been avoiding sharing bad news that I learned with regard to Alima. She died a couple of months ago as a result of TB and cerebral malaria. All at Project Mercy were and are extremely sad about losing such an amazing person. Evidently the hospital in Butajira only treated the TB without realizing that she had the most deadly form of malaria. By the time they got her to the hospital in Addis it was too late. I hate like hell to share this news with you.
I was stunned. I have often been moved by the work Share Our Strength carries out. The organization has frequently worked in difficult circumstances in the aftermath of tragedy and disaster. But this was the first time in nearly two decades that I'd felt a sense of loss that touched me personally. It was the first time I'd experienced the brutal impact of poverty and disease on someone I knew and whom I had come to care for. This one small catastrophe had taken place not in a ravaged landscape but, ironically, in a setting of optimism and hope. With all the new building and progress at Yetebon, it was cruelly incongruous that Alima should have died.
It is tempting to describe Alima's death as senseless, but in a terrible way it makes perfect sense. Nearly 3,000 children die from malaria every day, almost 1 million each year. Malaria is the leading cause of death for children in Africa.
Global spending on malaria control at the time of Alima's death was $200 million a year -- a drop in the ocean. Perhaps Alima's death was inevitable. Treatment within twenty-four hours of the onset of malaria symptoms is essential. Unfortunately, lack of sufficient funds had prevented the hospital at Yetebon, a short walk from Alima's classroom, from being finished before she contracted malaria. Although Yetebon now has its hospital, many African towns and villages do not.